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A bold new look for Lauderdale's skyline
Sun Sentinel   Larry Barszewski  August 2013

A renowned Danish architect is about to give the city’s growing skyline a cutting-edge twist with a statement-making design that officials hope draws more visitors, residents and attention to the downtown.

Commissioners early Wednesday approved the $150 million Marina Lofts apartment complex on the south side of the New River with its look straight from the imagination of Bjarke Ingels, who received the European Prize for Architecture in 2010 and the Wall Street Journal Innovator of the Year Award for 2011.

His design includes two buildings that are separated by a 30-foot-wide zig-zagging fissure, which makes them look like one building snapped in half, while a third building will have boats sailing through its center to access the project’s marina.

“What we seek to do as a company is innovate, transform and inspire,” developer Asi Cymbal said. “We believe that great cities have great architecture.”

The apartment complex drew opposition from residents who said the project was too big for its location and those opposed to moving a majestic, six-story rain tree on the site. They fear the tree will not survive the transplant, despite assurances from tree-moving experts.

Supporters said the project will complete a missing link of the city’s Riverwalk, give the area an iconic architectural design and add more than a thousand residents to patronize downtown businesses and restaurants.

“We are proposing to line the Riverwalk with life and activity,” Ingels said.

Not everyone was blown away by the design. Resident Jessica Kross urged developers to “get a reasonably sized building that’s not ugly, that doesn’t look like a hurricane already hit it.”

Commissioners were concerned the project, to be built in phases, would not look as architecturally stunning if only one of its three buildings is finished. They also are requiring Cymbal to give the city an easement so it can finish the Riverwalk section in the event the developer does not complete the overall project.

Supporters said Marina Lofts is just the boost the downtown needs.

“Marina Lofts is a catalyst to bring a missing vibrancy to the city of Fort Lauderdale,” said Bob Swindell, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance.

Because of its design and what its developers call “affordable luxury,” with units starting at $1,100 a month, supporters say the project will draw a new group of younger people downtown.

“We’re catering to a demographic that is looking for a new way to live,” Cymbal said. “We’re creating a sense of excitement that we believe is unprecedented.”

Kelly Alvarez Vitale, who lives and works downtown, said millenials who prefer urban spaces where they can leave their cars behind will choose to live elsewhere without such projects.

“I want our city to be able to go out and compete against the Charlottes and the Austins and the Portlands of the world,” she said

Many residents in the surrounding neighborhood complained the project between Southwest Fourth Avenue and the Florida East Coast railroad tracks needed to be scaled back to create a better transition between downtown high-rises and their homes.

“The Marina Loft towers and parking garages do not provide a transition,” said Brucie Cummings, president of the Tarpon River Civic Association, who was also concerned about potential traffic congestion and parking-space shortages. “A 33-story tower next to a single-family residential home is not a transition.”

Resident Mary Fertig doesn’t think the city needs to do anything to burnish its image.

“We are a destination,” Fertig said. “We are ‘somebody’ worldwide and we are known. … Some of the things we are known for are beautiful, beautiful skies and sun and trees.”

At the commission’s request, Cymbal cut 110 units from the size of his project, which will include marina, residential, retail and restaurant space. The project’s three buildings will hold a maximum 856 apartments, including six live-work spaces, while its tallest building will be 30 stories, three shorter than proposed.

The changes were enough to win over Commissioner Dean Trantalis and give the project’s site plan unanimous 4-0 commission approval. Commissioner Romney Rogers did not vote because of a conflict of interest, saying a law partner represents Water Taxi, which stands to benefit from subsidized fares the city is requiring the developer to provide apartment residents.

“I think that the reductions have brought me close to finding it acceptable,” said Trantalis, the only commissioner who voted against moving the rain tree. “I think it’s really going to help the south side of the New River.”

Cymbal said he expects construction work to begin within nine months.

Cymbal will have to put up a $1 million bond that will be paid if the rain tree does not survive at least five years at its new location. The money would be used to buy new trees to plant in the city.

The rain tree had received protected status from a previous commission 26 years ago.

Fort Lauderdale’s rain tree

Species: Albezia Samanea Saman (African Rain Tree)

Location: 400 block, Southwest Fourth Street

History: Given protected status by City Commission in 1987; denied historic status by Broward Commission in December

Estimated age: 80-100 years old

Potential life span: 100-300 years

Height: 72 feet

Trunk diameter: 6-feet-4-inches

Trunk circumference: 20-feet-1-inch

Canopy (north-south): 135 feet

Weight: 750,000-900,000 pounds

Estimated root ball: 50 feet

Distance to be moved: About 150 feet

Cost of move: About $1 million

Developer penalty if tree dies: $1 million

Amount of water needed after roots cut: Up to 2,000 gallons a day

Transplanting: Could take three to nine months

To clear a path to new site: Eight significant large trees have to be relocated first and four utility poles have to come down

Sources: Robert Brennan, arboricultural consulting, and Paul Cox, Environmental Designs